Dial Straits

When is a trivia question not a trivia question?
For the answer to that puzzler, just grab the phone and call Star Entertainment Trivia, a new telephone game sponsored by the grocery store tabloid of the same name. Using touch-tone buttons to indicate your responses, simply answer six multiple-choice questions correctly and, voila, you've won $100. What could be simpler?

As it turns out, practically anything.
Easy money doesn't come much harder than this. Or much more expensive, either. Players are billed 95 cents each minute they stay on the phone, a steep tariff for the privilege of discovering they'd have a better shot at naming famous Albanian weightlifters of the nineteenth century.

Eager to bag a quick C-note, the New Times trivia squad rang up the 900-number that appeared in the Star earlier this month. A cheery pre-recorded voice offered a choice of two trivia games: "championship sports" and "all-star entertainment." As hard-core couch potatoes, we elected to play the latter, indicating our choice by punching 2 on the touch-tone phone. Let the games begin!

"In the television series Green Acres, who played Lisa Douglas?" This question was followed by four possible answers, each keyed to a button on the phone.

Our trivia ringleader smirked triumphantly. "Piece o' cake," he gloated, jabbing the button representing "Eva Gabor."

"Do you want to change your answer?" asked the telephone quiz master. "Push 1 for no, 2 for yes."

Standing pat, we pushed 1.
"Hey! You got it right!" cheered our pre-recorded host, the clock ticking off expensive seconds as he prattled on in his best Wink Martindale voice. "You're off to a good start! Now get ready for question number two."

Our ringleader's smirk faded fast when we were asked to identify the real name of Dan Blocker's Hoss Cartwright character on Bonanza. "Is `Hoss' short for Horse?" someone volunteered lamely. Since that was not one of the four choices, we took a wild guess, punching in "Ben Cartwright Jr."

"Oooh, nooo--you're wrong!" moaned the emcee, his voice sliding into Mr. Bill territory. "That was a tough one, wasn't it? Oh, well, better luck next time." Yeah.

Our next call, we were tripped up during the third question, which was about a minor character on the TV sitcom Teachers Only, a 1982 show none of us had ever heard of.

Determined to beat the Star, we surrounded ourselves with reference books before making our next call. This helped during the early rounds but ultimately proved useless when we were asked about arcane statistics, like the TV show that placed 25th in the Nielsen ratings on a designated date in 1988. Back to square one.

Our resident sports expert fared no better on the sports trivia line. Stymied by a grammatically convoluted baseball question that popped up midway through one game ("Which team did the major league's first player with an artificial limb make his major league debut against in a regular season game?"), he slammed the phone down in disgust. "I don't even understand that question! Nobody could know this stuff!" With tension, frustration and phone bills mounting, we decided to give the entertainment line one last shot. "Who starred in the 1979 film The China Syndrome?"

Jack Lemmon!
"Who played the role of Woody Banner in the TV series Hey, Landlord?"
Will Hutchins!

"In the film Raiders of the Lost Ark, what is the name of Indiana Jones' girlfriend?"

"Who directed the 1946 film The Best Years of Our Lives?"
William Wyler!

"Which of the following sets of actors starred in the film that was promoted with the slogan `Because of its frank nature, we urge you: Do not see it alone!'?"

Uhhh . . . Ann Sothern and Jeff Corey! (Five out of five! We were too excited to quibble that Sothern and Corey were actually supporting players, not stars, in Lady in a Cage, the 1964 Olivia De Havilland shocker in question.)

"Great! You got it right!" boomed the pre-recorded maestro. "Now this is it--the last question! If you get this one right, you'll be $100 richer!"

By now, we could almost taste the money. Even if we didn't know the answer to the final riddle (a strong possibility here), we had a 25 percent chance of guessing correctly. Or so we thought until the master of minutiae on the other end of the line suddenly upped the odds from one in four to one in ninety. "Now, to answer Question No. 6 correctly, you must enter a two-digit number between 10 and 99! Good luck! Here comes your final question: After being on the top-grossing film chart for fifteen weeks, what rank was the film The Black Stallion?"

Groan! By the time we got around to punching in an answer, our alloted eight seconds had expired and the quizmaster was already into his "Oooh, nooo!" conciliatory rap.

"The Black Stallion?! This is horse#$%*!" one of us sputtered. "Not even the producer of the movie could answer that question!"

Ruminating over our touch-tone Waterloo, we realized that because of its ambiguous wording, no one could answer that question. Does "after fifteen weeks" mean the end of the fifteenth week or the beginning of the sixteenth? And what "top-grossing film chart" was the source of this information in the first place?

"That's a good question," admits Mike Zipfel, an account executive for CISCORP, the Dallas-based telecommunications firm that developed the Star trivia contest. "All our answers are keyed to a source and that source is our Bible. But if there is some confusion or ambiguity, we're are very generous--we give 'em free plays."

Whether those free plays are even worth playing is another question. Because of CISCORP's contract with Star, Zipfel says, the company is forbidden from releasing information about how many calls or winners the game has generated since the tabloid began promoting it earlier this month. "I can say that the response has been terrific," says Zipfel, who reports that trivia players have been phoning in by the thousands. "And I'm told we have had winners, although I couldn't tell you how many." The game, he says, is "a real money-maker."

A lot of that moolah undoubtedly comes from players who are seduced by the simplicity of the early throwaway questions and phone repeatedly before finally throwing in the towel. "The first question is one that most people should get," concedes Zipfel. "As you go on, the questions increase in degree of difficulty. The sixth question is always an exact piece of information as indicated by a two-digit code--like `How many weeks did Laverne and Shirley stay on the Top 10 chart, according to the Nielsen ratings?'" Zipfel confesses that the questions are tough. "They separate the men from the boys and the girls from the women, so to speak." Still, he claims that it is possible to win and reports that when a similar quiz was sponsored by USA Weekend earlier this year, that contest actually produced a number of multiple winners.

Zipfel won't say why the contest limits a household to three wins per month--as if anyone could win this game even once. But he claims the rule has nothing to do with the possibility that someone with access to a huge computer data base just might be able to break the bank.

"Our system is so sophisticated, I don't think that thought has ever crossed our mind," he reports. "However, there are people out there who have tried to do that--and they have very large phones bills because of it.

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